Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights” is less suited to film adaptation than her older sister Charlotte’s “Jane Eyre.”
While “Jane Eyre” is a romance, “Wuthering Heights” is a story of passion in all senses of the word.
Last year, director Cary Fukunaga made an admired revisionist film version of “Jane Eyre.” Now, director Andrea Arnold (“Red Road,” “Fish Tank”) tops it with her earthy, fleshy rendition of “Wuthering Heights.”
As in other “Wuthering Heights” movies, Arnold concentrates on the first half of the novel, not the second half that involves a next generation of characters.
But unlike other versions with period costumes and lovely sets, this one takes place in a more realistic setting: a leaky, drafty, unglamorous house on the Yorkshire moors. The men must duck their heads to get through the squeaky doorway, and the floorboards creak under their muddy boots.
Arnold boxes her images into a narrow frame with muted colors, creating a damp, chilling atmosphere.
Yet her most striking contribution is to make leading man Heathcliff black. In other versions, he’s merely an outcast and a Gypsy deemed unworthy of Catherine’s love, but here race becomes a more cruelly logical and resonant reason for him to face discrimination.
One night near a poor farm, a mysterious boy, Heathcliff (Solomon Glave), appears, and the farmer takes him in, even though the family disapproves. However, young Catherine (Shannon Beer) realizes she can nurture her first burnings of rebellion by befriending him.
They grow close, but fate conspires to keep them apart. When the farmer dies, Catherine’s racist brother takes over the farm and turns Heathcliff into a slave who must sleep in the barn.
The meat of the story comes years later, after runaway Heathcliff returns as a grown, well-to-do man (newcomer James Howson). Meanwhile, grown-up Catherine (Kaya Scodelario) has married wealthy, foppish neighbor Edgar (James Northcote).
While this Heathcliff is not an outright monster, he is monstrous; he torments animals and flies into terrifying fits of rage and self-pity. Catherine can’t tame him, he can’t give her security; this is the ultimate romantic tragedy, set at the place where love and death meet.
By cutting away the fancy decorations usually associated with literary adaptations, Arnold has stripped “Wuthering Heights” to its essence. This movie may not have frills, but its heart, full of pain and pleasure, truly beats.